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'The residents' faces light up': Charles House provides engaging eldercare

The sun sets on the front of the Charles House on Oct 17, 2023.

At Charles House, an eldercare day program in Chapel Hill, volunteer Lily Root often works with people who have difficulty recognizing her or remembering her name.

But, every Monday morning, when she walks into Charles House for her shift, she is greeted by a resident named Doug, who always asks, “Hey Lily, want to see my comic strip for today?”

"Of course," she always says.

She said it's the best part of her day.

Charles House is one of two day program centers for elderly people in Orange County and differs from other senior care facilities because it offers more structured engagement, associate director Dean Fox said. 

Up to 38 members follow a schedule throughout the day, taking part in activities such as flower arranging, news discussion groups, exercise and jeopardy games. They are also able to choose what they want to do.

The program specializes in working with people with dementia, meaning volunteers and full-time workers take special care in providing engaging activities to slow the progression of the disease.

"We're very focused on treating folks as adults with adult lives and adult experiences and adult desires and abilities,” Fox said. “And so we really are focused on the abilities and the experiences and the skills that folks bring with them and not on their function loss.”

According to its website, the original center was opened in 1990 by a family who was unable to find eldercare options they liked for their father in full-time care facilities or through at-home care. A secondary full-time care location was opened in Carrboro in 2014.

Root said the other facility she worked at often only had board games or bingo as forms of engagement, leaving residents to sit in silence by themselves when they weren’t doing an activity. At Charles House, there is a changing weekly schedule, allowing people who work there to come up with activities that are engaging to them as well.

“One time last week, it was old jingles, and you see the residents' faces light up when they see that the Snickers jingle came on that they listened to in their childhood when the commercials would come on,” she said.

Bryan Godfrey, a social worker in the UNC School of Medicine's Division of Geriatric Medicine, said he often refers patients with dementia to Charles House. He said some of the Charles House's methods, including reminiscence therapy and using music and dancing in their programs, are very effective in slowing dementia’s progress.

“Many [participants] are people who would look a lot different if not for their connection to Charles House, and many of them would appear lower functioning if not for their time at Charles House, and many would be in institutional care settings,” Fox said. “I really connect to the impact that we have on their lives and also on the lives of their caregivers, and it is so meaningful to me.”

Godfrey also said one of the most important aspects of day program options is that they give a break for family members and caregivers, especially when the work gets tiring or frustrating.

When used in conjunction with at-home care — which can be very expensive — Godfrey said a day program can also be more cost effective. Charles House specifically receives funding from the Orange County Department on Aging and other programs to help subsidize the cost for those who cannot afford it, Fox said. 

“I think a lot of what senior care is, is piecing together the right stuff,” he said.

@DTHCityState |

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